Most visitors to Namibia arrive at the country’s main international airport, Hosea Kutako (WDH), situated about 60 km east of the capital city, Windhoek.
Because of the airport’s rural location, self-driving customers of Unique Tours & Safaris are not expected to cover that distance by themselves, especially not after a tiring long-haul flight and the sudden exposure to a most likely unfamiliar climate. A friendly meet & greet awaits them instead, and a transfer to their confirmed accommodation. Once guests are settled in, the rental company will deliver the hired vehicle to their door step.
Windhoek is home to a kaleidoscope of cosy guesthouses, almost all situated in quiet residential surroundings and each boasting a swimming pool, numerous amenities and rooms en-suite.
Activity options in Windhoek include guided city & cultural tours, exploring the city centre’s historic buildings, monuments, modern shopping malls, museums, craft markets, and cosy boulevard cafés on foot, dining at restaurants that cater for a wide variety of tastes, and excursions to game farms located just outside town.
Windhoek counts amongst the most beautiful and lively “little cities” in Africa and is characterised by a cosmopolitan flair, a rich history and well-kept ambience. Its location almost in the geographical centre of Namibia makes Windhoek not only the country’s economic power-house but a place to enjoy magnificent views of the central highland’s impressive mountain ranges from countless vantage points.
The rolling hills and remote rugged mountains of this almost square-shaped fault zone in the centre of Namibia starts immediately outside of Windhoek and drops abruptly to sea level where it meets the Namib Desert, some 150 km further west.
Only three public gavel roads traverse the Khomas Highlands, of which one can only be used for east-west passages with 4×4 vehicles, while the others are good for driving in both directions. Unlike elsewhere, these roads are not taking the traveller along winding valley floors but straight across the heights, at an average altitude of 2000 m, affording magnificent views of the surrounding untouched landscapes. Giant rock formations and table mountains, like the Gamsberg Plateau, can be seen from as far as 80 km away in the crisp clean air of these highlands.
Just as rare as roads are accommodation options in this part of Namibia but where they do exist, the traveller is assured of unrivalled nature experiences, especially when taking the time to explore their unique surroundings on foot.
Assumed to be the oldest desert on earth, the Namib dominates the country’s entire western part, from the Kunene River in the north, on the border shared with Angola, to the Gariep (previously: Orange) River in the south, on the Namibian/South African border. The Namib has got many different faces and is home to a multitude of different wildlife species that adapted to the harsh living conditions of is gravel plains, sand dune fields and Karoo-like environments.
Where the sun-burnt Namib meets the arctic ocean waters of the Southern Atlantic with broad sandy beaches, humans have found ingenious ways to take advantage of an unusually moderate climate compared to the remainder of Namibia. However, with settlements few and far between, the Skeleton Coast still deserves its name.
Swakopmund, central Skeleton Coast
Originally a German-colonial outpost on the central coast to facilitate the import of troops, farmers and goods by ship, Swakopmund re-invented itself many times over, before becoming Namibia’s most sought-after sea-side holiday resort and home to a vibrant, enterprising community.
Today, Swakopmund lures domestic and foreign travellers with its interesting colonial architecture and museums, many small shops offering top-quality souvenirs and jewellery hand-made from Namibian gem stones, as well as with countless options for outdoor activities. Whether long walks on seemingly endless empty beaches or romantic sundowners perched atop a Namib sand dune are on your mind, you’ll find them here, next to some of the best restaurants and accommodation options in the country.
Living Desert Excursion – only available from/to Swakopmund
During this exhilarating guided half-day outing, you experience first-hand that the Namib is anything but a lifeless desert. When your guide suddenly jumps from the off-road vehicle for seemingly no apparent reason, you can rest assured nearly every time that he spotted a clue in the ocean of sand and will soon invite you to view his find … be it a small creature, like a sand-diving Palmato gecko, a chameleon, a side-winder snake and a dune-rolling spider, a tiny plant or some geological phenomena of the Namib Desert.
Marine Cruise – only available from/to Swakopmund and Walvis Bay
The Walvis Bay Lagoon is ideal for observing Bottle-nose and Benguela dolphins, Cape fur seals, a variety of pelagic bird species and other creatures that thrive in the cold Southern Atlantic waters. Representatives of rare species, such as the Mola Mola (sun fish) that swims in a curious side-way tilt when relaxed, and sea turtles are frequently encountered as well.
During the winter season in the southern hemisphere, giant Southern-right Whales make an appearance at Namibia’s coast when they travel up the African sub-continent with the arctic Benguela Current to reach northern feeding grounds and to give birth to 1-ton off-spring in slightly warmer waters. Whales can only be seen in Namibia in the open Atlantic Ocean beyond the Walvis Bay Lagoon but watching them breach the water surface or wave a massive tail fluke is still a sight to behold, even from a distance.
Cape Cross Seal Reserve
A once far-flung peninsula on the south-west African coast became the first known site of landfall by European sea explorers on Namibian soil, some 600 years ago. Finding only some sea creatures and foraging carnivores inhabiting lonely beaches but no way to conquer the great desert thirstland that blocked their way into the interior, they planted a wooden cross to document their visit for posterity only never to return.
Today, the remains of the original cross can be viewed at the National Museum in Windhoek while a stone cross took its place at the Skeleton Coast, carrying the same inscriptions. The peninsula, now named Cape Cross, became only famous, after desert explorers of the 19th century re-discovered the cross and the huge numbers of seals that literally covered vast beaches with their black mass of bodies. It still took decades, until Cape Cross became a Cape-fur Seal Reserve and accessible to the public.
Even though the commercial utilisation of this natural resource, over nearly a century, is strongly debated these days, it needs to be remembered that the Cape Cross Seal Reserve is still home to one of the largest seal colonies in the Southern hemisphere, up to this day, with an annual head count averaging around 120 000 individuals. The rising of ocean water temperatures also in the Benguela Current and the resulting loss of fish populations are a far greater threat to the future existence of this and other seal colonies as well as many other sea creatures than controlled and limited seal harvesting has ever posed.
Visitors to Cape Cross are most welcome to experience for themselves the state of this huge thriving seal colony by taking an undisturbed stroll amongst the animals along raised walk-ways.
Towering over the surrounding Namib Desert plains, the main peak of these granite mountains, the Great Spitzkoppe, is nicknamed the ‘Namibian Matterhorn’ for the strange shape it shares with it European cousin, which is also reflected in its official name which means nothing else but ‘pointed peak’.
Together with its neighbouring rock formations and the Pontok Mountains, the Spitzkoppe range forms a circle with open savannah plains and fascinating huge erosion-shaped granite blocks, such as the Rock Arch, in the centre.
These mountains are best accessed through the southern entrance to the protected area, situated about half-way between Henties Bay and the Erongo Mountains. Guided nature walks can be booked and entrance fees be paid on the spot. For day visitors travelling in a 4×4 vehicle, the Spitzkoppe is a wonderful place for taking a lunch-time break. It only takes minutes to reach e.g. the Rock Arch view point from the entrance gate, where one finds shaded spots for a picnic lunch and from where it is possible to scramble up some boulders for a closer look at the rock arch.
There is a unique atmosphere hanging over the mysterious Erongo Mountains that intrigues and touches the soul of every one who welcomes its experience. It seems to communicate that humankind has not yet even begun to understand what really went on here several thousand years ago.
Pre-historic rock paintings on rock faces protected from the elements depict a wildlife paradise, scenes of hunting parties and every-day events, some possibly even documenting encounters with outlandish travellers. Mystical circles, footprints and other spiritual signs engraved into rocks of volcanic origin can be found on flat outcrops facing the skies. In places, the techniques used to create these lasting ‘history books’ appear to be so sophisticated that the awe-struck onlooker of today can only marvel whether the ancient artists had knowledge of or even own exposure to events on earth that still elude our comprehension.
Such events also seem to have had influences on the rituals, the world view and belief system of the San. Although hunter-gatherer peoples like the Bushmen have long disappeared from the Erongo Mountains, the Living Museum of the Ju’/hoansi on the Omandumba Farm provides a glimpse into Africa’s past largely unknown to the modern-day world. As members of the oldest human race still alive, the Ju’/hoansi, a San tribe nowadays at home in north-eastern Namibia, made it their mission to educate the outside world about the traditional life-style of the bushmen. They do so for the sake of the survival of their ancient skills and knowledge, by passing them on to their children along the way, and ultimately for their own existence. The San are under threat of extinction all across Southern Africa through centuries of marginalisation but projects like the Living Museum at Omandumba have brought new hope that assistance with gentle adaptations to modern life and merging ancient wisdom with training in basic skills that allow coping with present-day demands can trigger a turn-around.
Visitors can take bush walks with a group of San men to learn about reading animal spoors, fire-making, setting up traps and how hunting bows and arrows are made, since times untold. At the general meeting point, interactions also with women and children are possible who produce beautiful traditional adornments from ostrich eggshells as well as perform traditional songs and dances.
Some of the younger men have learnt to speak English and so visitors are welcome to ask questions towards a better understanding of the San’s culture. These peaceful people have a great sense of humour and an intoxicating natural friendliness. Spending half a day or longer in their company may turn into an eye-opener to those looking for answers in respect of securing a future for mankind and our planet.
Etosha National Park
Today’s purposes and attractions of the Etosha National Park as well as its counterparts across Southern Africa are well known and documented in countless publications. Etosha is the ideal choice for observing African game, bird, reptile, insect and predatory cat species when visitors also value spending holiday times in a natural environment away from traveller crowds and at reasonably priced overnight facilities. The park’s rest camps each provide various accommodation and camping options for a fairly limited number of visitors as well as all amenities appreciated by foreign tourists too, including a swimming pool, restaurant, re-fuelling station, a small clinic, a shop selling basic grocery and household supplies, and a waterhole where game viewing may be enjoyed throughout the day and night without driving around.
At the heart of the park lies the vast expanse of the Etosha Pan, a shallow depression whose barren crystalline surface glitters blindingly in the sun. Once the inland delta of the Kunene River, before tectonic plate movements shifted the river’s course, the pan is still occasionally fed with water by the Oshana System, a maze of channels dissecting Namibia’s Owamboland area situated to the north of it, in years of heavy summer rain falls. During the remainder of the year, natural wells along the edges of the pan attract wildlife in great numbers, as do pumped waterholes scattered around the entire nature sanctuary.
Some lesser known yet most interesting facts are that Etosha is a word from the San language meaning “place of dry water”, and that the pan and its game-rich surroundings where known as Etosha amongst the Bushmen’s nomadic ancestors, millennia before anyone thought about establishing protected wildlife parks. Great efforts still have to be invested by nature conservation authorities and workers to prevent elephants from tearing down Etosha Park fences in order to be able once again to follow their ancient migration routes to the north-eastern Kavango and Caprivi Regions of modern-day Namibia, which have permanent rivers and grazing throughout the year. However, the onset of the annual summer rain fall season in these regions, far earlier and heavier than around Etosha, triggered wildlife migrations towards the west and south where more favourable conditions for giving birth and raising off-spring existed. Towards the end of the dry winter season, the animals were back at the Kavango, Chobe, Kwando and Zambezi Rivers hundreds of kilometres further north-east. The herds followed the rains; carnivores and eventually nomadic hunter-gatherer tribes followed the herds and thus discovered the curious depression in north-central Namibia that they named Etosha.
Like generations of elephants and other larger game species never lost that ancient wisdom, the San never forgot theirs, which is still present in tales told around their camp fires up to this day.
One San group even demanded from the Namibian Government only a few years back to be granted the right to live a traditional life around Etosha once again. The practicalities of such a move and possible alternatives are still under discussion.
Waterberg Plateau Mountain
Its strange shape rising like an island out of the arid bushveld plains of the Otjozondjupa Region and visible from as far as 100 km away, the Waterberg Plateau is another one of Namibia’s intriguing mountains. High vertical sandstone cliffs on the one side with active springs in jungle-like forests at their foot, and a plateau sloping down into hardly accessible wilderness on the other inhabited by endemic fauna and flora only found here, the Waterberg, – as it is called locally -, constitutes a world almost on its own. Dinosaurs once roamed this land, as petrified footprints prove; only a handful of rhinoceroses rescued in Damaraland and relocated to the remote plateau for protection, during Namibia’s turbulent times prior to independence, miraculously recovered from the brink of extinction nearly without human intervention; it is still home to the only Cape Griffon Vulture colony in Namibia, and hikers fit enough to complete the 5-day plateau trail through pretty rough terrain under a scorching African sun return mesmerised by extraordinary nature experiences.
Nowadays visitors have various options to enjoy the Waterberg Plateau as a soft adventure travel destination while staying at comfortable lodges and guest farms nearby that offer guided plateau drives and short guided walking trails as well as rewarding wildlife observations in its immediate surroundings.
Apart from playing a lesser known yet just as important role in Namibia’s tremendous nature conservation efforts than Etosha, the Waterberg Plateau area is also home to the world’s largest and most important cheetah conservation project, the Cheetah Conservation Fund. With Namibia remaining the only country on earth to have a large stable population of free-roaming cheetahs with a diverse and healthy gene pool, the CCF not only takes care of protective measures and scientific research into this elusive species but is a driving force behind international programmes to re-populate areas around the world where cheetahs became extinct and as a result, the natural environment lost its finely tuned balance.
This is Namibia, – at least a few of the main attractions in the country’s northern half -, only seen from a different perspective!
This is ‘Namibia – only different’!
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